● Congress: On Friday, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, the most far-reaching voting rights legislation to strengthen democracy since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This groundbreaking bill, which was given the symbolically important designation of "HR 1," aims to preserve and expand the right to vote, reform campaign finance laws to deter corruption, and change the way the election system works by banning gerrymandering at the federal level.
The bill passed exactly along party lines, demonstrating just how hostile national Republicans are to the idea of protecting the right to vote in free and fair elections. That's why it doesn't stand a chance of becoming law so long as Mitch McConnell is in charge of the Senate, since he has vowed not to even bring it up for a vote. However, the legislation's passage underscores how serious Democrats are about protecting our democratic institutions, and it could become law if Democrats gain control of the Senate and presidency in 2020.
As we explained when the bill was introduced, the proposal takes a four-pronged approach to protecting free and fair elections by (1) removing barriers to expand access to voting; (2) securing the integrity of the vote by mandating paper ballots; (3) establishing public financing in House elections to level the playing field; and (4) banning congressional gerrymandering by requiring that every state create a nonpartisan redistricting commission.
Below we list each of the bill's major provisions and a few of its smaller but still important requirements, including measures that were included as amendments to the original bill:
- Automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies
- Same-day voter registration
- Online voter registration
- Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they'll be on the rolls when they turn 18
- Allowing state colleges and universities to serve as registration agencies
- Banning states from purging eligible voters' registration simply for infrequent voting
- Two weeks of in-person early voting, including availability on Sundays and outside of normal business hours
- Standardized hours within states for opening and closing polling places on Election Day, with exceptions to let cities set longer hours in municipal races
- Prepaid postage on mail ballots
- Allowing voters to turn in their mail ballot in person if they choose
- Requiring states to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions for congressional redistricting
- Ending prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners at their last address (rather than where they're incarcerated) for the purposes of redistricting
- Ending felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence, and requiring such citizens to be supplied with registration forms and informed their voting rights have been restored
- Expressing support for D.C. statehood (which is the subject of a separate bill)
- Public financing for House campaigns in the form of matching small donations at a six-for-one rate
- Expanded campaign finance disclosure requirements to mitigate Citizens United
- Banning corporations from spending on campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders
- Making it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting
One proposal that did not make it into the bill also merits attention even though lawmakers voted it down: lowering the voting age to 16 for federal elections. Though it was rejected by a vote of 305-126, that tally nevertheless means that a majority of Democrats supported this proposal (as did a lone Republican). No state or major city has yet moved to implement this policy locally, but given how much support House Democrats just showed for the idea, it's possible that things could begin to change over the coming years in blue states and cities.
Lastly, Democrats are also planning one other key voting rights measure as a separate bill, which would restore a critical part of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck it down in 2013. Democrats must first compile a lengthy factual record in support of that bill to help avoid a similar fate before the Supreme Court.
● Arkansas: Republican state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has given approval for organizers to begin gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would ostensibly reform the state's redistricting practices, but the measure appears to be a Trojan horse designed to undermine a competing reform proposal that is also currently in the signature-collecting phase.
This latest initiative would create a seven-member commission where the party that holds a majority in the state House—which is currently 76-24 Republican—would effectively hold a majority on the commission. By contrast, the earlier initiative, spearheaded by liberal attorney David Couch, would establish a genuinely bipartisan commission appointed by the legislature's majority and minority leaders. Under this system, no party would have a majority, a critical difference that would force the parties to compromise.
If both of these measures make the ballot, the one with the most votes in favor would prevail. The fact that Republicans are trying to put a sham measure on the ballot to detract from Couch's initiative suggests they're worried they wouldn't be able to defeat it at the ballot box.
● Maryland: On March 1, a bipartisan commission created by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to redraw Maryland's 6th Congressional District unanimously chose a replacement map created by Daily Kos' own Stephen Wolf.
The 6th District was struck down in federal court last year as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, prompting Hogan to form an emergency commission to recommend a replacement map to the state legislature. While the commission's decision doesn't automatically mean the map Wolf proposed will become law, there's a good chance that it or a similar proposal could.
That's because the court must still approve any remedial map. Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature therefore has an incentive to draw lines that will pass legal muster. If it does not, the judges hearing the case would craft their own map.
Prior to the selection of his map on Friday, Wolf published an article explaining the background of this case and why he redrew the lines the way he did. As you can see from the map, which is shown here (see here for an interactive version), several districts remain heavily gerrymandered. However, because only a single district—the 6th—was struck down, Wolf correctly anticipated that the commission would prefer to follow longstanding practices in similar redistricting litigation, which have seen courts favor remedial plans that alter as few districts as possible.
In keeping with this precedent, Wolf redrew only the 6th and neighboring 8th Districts, relying on strictly nonpartisan criteria. Chief among Wolf’s aims were keeping cities and counties whole, while making the boundary between the two districts more compact. As a result, the 6th would flip from voting for Hillary Clinton by 55-40 in the 2016 presidential election to supporting Donald Trump by 52-43.
The commission plans to hold two public hearings regarding its selection, on March 12 and March 20, and it plans to make a final decision on the replacement map by April 2. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on March 26 in an appeal brought by Democrats, and a ruling is expected by June. A victory for the plaintiffs would see the 6th District redrawn ahead of the 2020 elections. For their part, Democratic legislators are likely to wait to call a special session to redraw the map depending on the outcome of their appeal.
● Census: On Wednesday, a federal judge in California issued a ruling that blocked the Trump administration from adding a question regarding citizenship status to the 2020 census, which Republicans have sought as a way to weaponize the census to undermine the political clout of Democrats and communities of color.
This ruling, from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg in California, comes after another federal judge in New York blocked the citizenship question in January in a separate case, which is already headed to an appeal before the Supreme Court in April. Seeborg’s decision could have an even greater impact, though, as he deemed the administration's actions unconstitutional in addition to a violation of federal law.
Seeborg found that the Trump administration had violated the Constitution's Enumeration Clause, which requires the federal government to count every single person in the U.S. every 10 years, holding that "including the citizenship question on the 2020 Census is fundamentally counterproductive to the goal of obtaining accurate citizenship data about the public.” He further determined that the question would depress response rates among immigrants and noncitizens, threatening the accuracy of the count.
Both this ruling and the previous one focused on the deceptive nature of the administration's stated reason for adding the question. In testimony before Congress, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had claimed that the Justice Department had requested the addition of the question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, documents later emerged proving that Ross’ explanation was a pretext to hide his real motives, since he had in fact approached the Justice Department, not the other way around.
While the decision in New York focused on the administration’s violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, it did not rule on any constitutional issues. Consequently, even if the Supreme Court overturns that ruling, this second case could provide further grounds to block the citizenship question in the event of an all but certain appeal.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Florida: After 2018's recounts exposed numerous glaring flaws with Florida's elections systems, a committee in the Republican-controlled state Senate advanced a bipartisan bill to address some of those problems. However, Republicans in the state House are reportedly skeptical about the need for changes.
If the Senate's bill becomes law, it would standardize the way in which voter instructions are included on ballots after a flawed design in populous (and heavily Democratic) Broward County likely caused thousands of voters to undervote in the 2018 Senate race, which was decided by just 10,033 votes.
Another provision would extend the recount deadline after counties struggled to keep pace in last year's recount. The bill would also require that voters whose absentee mail ballots are rejected for a supposedly non-matching signature be notified and have up to 11 days after Election Day to verify their identity and "cure" the problem; the current deadline is the day before Election Day.
● Hawaii: Democrats in Hawaii's state House have passed a bill to automatically register eligible voters when they conduct business with the state's driver's licensing agency, unless they opt out. Democrats have had a poor track record of passing election reform proposals in recent years in Hawaii despite their huge majorities in the legislature, but they may be more serious about finally changing things this year judging by how many election-related bills have already advanced.
Indeed, House Democrats have also passed a separate bill to require instant-runoff voting in all primaries, special elections, and nonpartisan general elections starting in 2020. This change would be particularly consequential in primaries, since they're often tantamount to the whole election given how weak the Republican Party is in Hawaii. Under current law, special elections can take place without primaries or runoffs, which in the past has led to bizarre outcomes, such as a 2010 race for the House that a Republican won with just 40 percent of the vote even as two Democrats combined for 57 percent.
Finally, Democrats in both chambers have once again passed bills to establish universal voting by mail, which would save money and could increase turnout by making it more convenient to vote. However, similar measures have passed repeatedly in the last several years only to see the House and Senate fail to reconcile their different versions, and it's unclear if lawmakers will overcome potential disagreements this time.
● Nevada: After gaining full control of state government last year for the first time in more than two decades, Nevada Democrats have taken up a bill that would allow for same-day voter registration and extend early voting to the weekend immediately prior to Election Day. Voters also approved an initiative last year to automatically register eligible voters who do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles, so if these additional measures become law, Nevada could become one of the leading states for ease of voting access.
● Washington: Washington's Democratic-run state state Senate has passed a bill with near-unanimous support to make permanent a change introduced in 2018 that had the state prepay the postage on mail ballots. Adopting this policy for good would make voting more convenient in a state that almost universally votes by mail, and in so doing could increase participation.
● Arizona: Arizona Republicans have passed a bill in the state Senate that would ban the use of so-called emergency voting centers on the weekend and Monday immediately prior to Election Day, when in-person early voting is normally restricted unless voters have an "unforeseen circumstance" that would prevent them from voting on Election Day. This move comes in response to Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who oversees election administration in the county home to three-fifths of the state, after he opened several such emergency centers in 2018.
Republicans also passed another bill out of the state Senate that would purge thousands of voters from the permanent absentee list if they haven't voted in any of the last two general elections or primary elections. While those voters would still be registered, they would have to either apply for a new absentee ballot or vote in person, a switch that would be sure to cause confusion for voters accustomed to receiving ballots at home every year. Opponents of the proposal also argue it's unnecessary, since the state and counties already take steps to maintain their voter rolls when people move or die.
● Iowa: Republican state Sen. Roby Smith has introduced a bill to place several new restrictions on voting, targeting college student voters especially. The proposal, which has already passed a Senate subcommittee, would, among other things, ban public colleges from being used as satellite voting location; require polling places to close at 8 PM instead of 9 PM on Election Day; and require absentee mail ballots to be received by Election Day instead of just getting postmarked by Election Day.
Update: The paragraph below was based on erroneous reporting that said Iowa Republicans wanted to ban college students from voting if they do not say on a required form that they plan to stay in Iowa after graduation. Later reports clarified that the Republican legislation would instead change such registrations to “inactive” status, which could pave the way for later cancellation but which still permits registrants to vote. Please see this post for full details.
But that's not all. The worst of the provisions would attempt to outright ban any college student from voting who says they don't plan to live in Iowa after graduation. That proposal would appear to be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's 1979 ruling Symm v. United States, which struck down a nearly identical measure in Texas for violating the 26th Amendment. A lawsuit would almost certainly follow if this provision becomes law.
● South Dakota: A committee in South Dakota's Republican-led state Senate has killed a bill to cut early voting from 46 to 32 days, which had passed the state House only narrowly despite the GOP's wide majority. Consequently, South Dakota's early voting period will remain the longest in the country.
● Texas: In late February, a federal judge temporarily blocked a Republican-led effort to purge nearly 100,000 voter registrations using a badly flawed list of registered voters who were supposedly not citizens. Republican Secretary of State David Whitley had flagged those voters who at some point over the years had told a state government agency that they weren't citizens. However, further scrutiny revealed the overwhelming majority of those individuals had become naturalized before registering.
Whitley's purge attempt, which the court called "ham-handed," has also landed the secretary in jeopardy of losing his job. Whitley is currently serving on an interim basis, meaning he needs to win confirmation from the state Senate to win the position permanently. Democrats, however, have vowed to vote against him, denying Whitley the two-thirds supermajority necessary for confirmation.
Meanwhile, two Republican state senators have filed bills that would have legally required the same bogus purge in an apparent attempt to intimidate registrars before the court blocked them from carrying out Whitley's directive. It's unclear just how much appetite Republican legislative leaders have for those proposals given the ongoing litigation over the issue, but if the bills were to become law, they would—without notification—purge the voter registrations of anyone who at any point had informed the government they weren't a citizen, meaning every naturalized citizen would be purged without even being informed.
● Nevada: Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has proposed a bill to require cities to hold their municipal elections in the fall of even-numbered years, a measure that the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, and other voting rights groups all support. The proposal would save money by combining local elections with state and federal ones. It would also greatly increase participation in local races, since turnout in November of even years can be several times higher than odd-year or spring elections for local office. That in turn should make electorates for local office more demographically representative of the citizenry.
● Hawaii: A bill to fully eliminate felony disenfranchisement in Hawaii cleared one committee in the state Senate committee last month, but because Democrats failed to pass it out of every required committee, the measure has effectively been put on hold for the rest of this year's legislative session. However, the proposal will carry over to 2020, when proponents will revive their push to change the current law, which disenfranchises inmates but not those on parole or probation.
● Iowa: A committee in Iowa's Republican-majority state House has unanimously advanced a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would automatically restore the voting rights of citizens who have served out their sentences for felony convictions. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds supports the measure, which would have to pass both chambers both before and after the 2020 elections before it could go before voters in a referendum in 2022.
● Delaware: Delaware Democrats have passed a bill out of the state Senate to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, with two of the chamber's seven Republican senators favoring it. A majority of members in the Democratic-run state House have sponsored the proposal, meaning there's a good chance Delaware will soon add its three Electoral College votes to the 172 votes of states already in the compact.
● Nevada: Democrats introduced a bill to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and gave the proposal a public hearing last week. It's unclear just how much support there is for the bill, but Nevada is one of several states where Democrats' unified hold on state government means the party could pass the measure without worrying about having to overcome Republican opposition.
● Georgia: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp drew national condemnation for his attempts to suppress and deceive voters as well as his office's security failures when he oversaw his own election for governor last year while serving as secretary of state. Now, one of his first major priorities is to make matters things worse under the pretext of reform.
Kemp is pushing to have the state spend at least $150 million to buy new electronic voting machines to replace all of the paperless models currently in use. While the current machines are long overdue for replacement with a more secure system, this plan has been criticized as an effort by Kemp to reward his cronies.
The machines Kemp and Republicans want to purchase are produced by Election Security & Software, which is the country's largest voting machine vendor. However, a recent New Yorker exposé revealed Kemp's deep ties to ES&S run deep and present a conflict of interest. For starters, Kemp's deputy chief of staff is a former lobbyist for ES&S. In addition, his executive counsel was on the company's board of advisers while Kemp was looking at replacement voting machines in 2017, a process that was supposed to be open to competition from other firms yet in reality appears to have been anything but.
Election security advocates have also condemned the plan because the use of electronic machines would cost at least three times what it would take to implement paper ballots that voters fill out themselves, and it's also far less secure. The ES&S machines don't even provide a paper trail for voters to review their choices, since they only create a barcode for officials to scan, something voters obviously wouldn't be able to read.
Election security was a major problem in Georgia's elections last year, when Kemp successfully fought off a lawsuit seeking to force the state to use paper ballots for that election. After the votes were tallied, election experts noticed that there were an unusually high number of undervotes in the lieutenant governor's race, but only among votes cast by electronic machine—at a rate four times higher than among votes who cast by absentee mail ballot.
Of course, since the current machines leave no paper trail, the results couldn't be audited to find out if votes simply weren't counted, or if the touchscreens had failed to displayed the contest altogether. Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost the race by just a 52-48 margin, has filed a lawsuit to require the state to investigate and potentially order a new election. In January, a state judge dismissed the case, but Amico and her fellow plaintiffs say they will appeal.
Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost last year's election to Kemp, and her Fair Fight Action group have mobilized against the move to purchase ES&S machines and have organized an ad campaign against it. However, Republicans did add several provisions to the voting machine bill to address several of the concerns that had pushed Abrams and Democrats to file multiple lawsuits to combat voter suppression measures last year.
Those provisions include requiring 30-day notice of any changes to polling places and prohibiting changes within 60 days of an election; requiring officials to mail voters a provisional ballot if their absentee ballot signature doesn't appear to match the one on file; notifying voters before their registrations are canceled; and relaxing Georgia's draconian "exact-match" law, which had suspended tens of thousands of voters' registrations whose applications to register had even trivial discrepancies—like a misplaced hyphen—with information in government databases.
Republicans have already passed the bill in the state House, and a state Senate committee has done the same. Given that the House vote fell almost entirely along party lines, there's a good chance the GOP's Senate majority will vote to send the bill to Kemp's desk.
● Arizona: Republicans in the Arizona state Senate have passed an amendment to the state constitution that would create an office of a lieutenant governor, which Arizona currently doesn't have; instead, the secretary of state is first in line to assume the governorship in the event of a vacancy. This proposal would let candidates for governor pick a running mate after the primaries, establishing a joint ticket for the general election, which is currently the practice in 11 other states.
If the Republican-controlled state House also passes it, the proposal would go to voters for their approval in a 2020 referendum. Arizonans have rejected the idea twice before, but the amendment's chief proponent says that the prior two efforts were both flawed.
It's worth noting that for the first time in almost a quarter century, the secretary of state's office is now held by a Democrat, following Katie Hobbs' victory last year. However, the amendment wouldn't take effect until 2026 and a lieutenant governor wouldn't take office until 2027, by which point Hobbs would be termed out even if she wins re-election in 2022. This reform is, in any event, a wise one, because having a lieutenant governor allied with the governor would best honor the voters' wishes in case of a vacancy.
Correction: This post has been edited to remove a reference to HR1 establishing Election Day as a holiday, as that provision was removed from the final version passed by House Democrats.